There might never
have been a stock car driver who wanted to win the Daytona 500 more than
Darrell Waltrip, nor one who has been dealt more cruel blows by the Big D. For
16 years, during which time he won 73 NASCAR races, the Daytona International
Speedway kept finding new ways to confound Waltrip. After last year's crusher,
when he suffered a blown engine with just 20 laps remaining and Bobby Allison
drove into Victory Lane, Waltrip asked his wife, Stevie, "What can I tell
the people who keep asking me why I haven't ever won the 500?"
it means too much to you," Stevie replied.
So Waltrip came to
Daytona this year armed with his wife's wisdom. He was determined not to care,
and apparently that was the secret. Driving with a clear head and a deft right
foot rather than an anxious heart, he slid into the lead three laps from the
checkered flag, while heavier-footed hot dogs lost their chance for the crown
because they had to pit for a final splash of fuel. Waltrip's share of the $1.7
million purse was $184,400, but the real payoff might be that never again will
he have to hear the question he had come to despise.
It's a good thing
Waltrip arrived at Daytona with a laid-back attitude, because Kenny Schrader
and his Monte Carlo roared through the undercard events for Sunday's 500
undefeated. First Schrader grabbed the pole at 196.997 mph, then he won the
$230,000 Busch Clash (limited to Winston Cup pole winners from last season) as
well as one of the two 125-mile qualifying races; no other car could match the
maroon Chevy's speed and handling. The only one to come close was Dale
Earnhardt's jet black Monte Carlo. Last Tuesday, Earnhardt was in a scary wreck
in practice for a Grand National race. That car was a write-off, but he was so
happy with his 500 car that he told well-wishers on Sunday, "See you in the
victory circle." He should have added, "Maybe next year." Now
Earnhardt, a three-time Winston Cup point champion but a nonwinner in the 500,
must shoulder alone the monkey he had shared with Waltrip.
The combination of
aerodynamic refinements ("We build an airplane for Daytona, not a race
car," said driver Neil Bonnett) and reduced power from NASCAR-mandated
carburetor restrictors made drafting crucial at this year's 500. Two-and
three-abreast racing was replaced by single-file streams of cars—conga lines of
twitchy, 3,500-pound dancers. Drivers were leery of pulling out to pass, for
fear they would be blown back to the end of the line. Much of the wall-tagging
in this race—the yellow flag came out seven times, for 30 of the 200 laps—was
attributable to drivers attempting to squeeze back in line.
After 50 laps, it
was clear that the winner would come from the pack of four leading cars at that
moment—all Monte Carlos, driven by Schrader, Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine and
Waltrip. However, Earnhardt's hopes were being dimmed by an engine flutter.
When he was on someone's bumper, his car was fine, but on its own it went lame.
He relentlessly rode the tail of other cars, mostly Schrader's.
Waltrip pitted for
gas with 53 laps left. Most of the other cars could run no more than 45 or 46
laps per tankful, but Waltrip knew his car was delivering better mileage. So
with 35 laps left, Waltrip, lingering in seventh place, radioed his crew chief,
Jeff Hammond, and suggested they go for the finish without an additional pit
stop. Hammond didn't think Waltrip could do it. "It's the only way we can
win," argued Waltrip. "I can make it. I promise I can make it."
That meant driving
the final 80 miles with a feather foot. Waltrip could not afford to move out in
the gas-robbing open but would have to stay tucked in the wake of other cars.
Meanwhile, up front, Schrader was burning up the track...and gas.
With 10 laps to
go, Schrader—and his shadow, Earnhardt—ducked into the pits together for a
final shot of fuel. Earnhardt came out first, boosting his hopes, but Schrader
quickly passed him. They were now third and fourth, with Alan Kulwicki and
Waltrip running one-two. Kulwicki had driven a smart race to get his Ford in
contention, but with four laps to go he cut a tire and had to pit, leaving
Waltrip in front by eight seconds.
fuel-pressure gauge dropped to zero. Terrified, he cried to Hammond, "I'm
out! I'm out!" Hammond told him to swerve the car around to slosh the
remaining gas into the pickup. "Shake it, baby, shake it! Shake it, baby,
shake it!" Hammond screamed.